BALTIMORE – Each Halloween season, thousands of schoolchildren flock to Pat and Alton Gallahan's 160-acre farm outside Washington to tromp through mud, drink hot cider and pick out a plump pumpkin for carving.
But this October, with a sniper stalking the area, some 500 schools and day care centers are calling off trips to the Gallahans' farm involving nearly 30,000 children for fear they could become another victim of gunman who has killed nine and injured two others.
Parents are facing similar dilemmas: Is it safe, they ask themselves, to let their little goblins out on the streets for trick-or-treating?
"I don't want to take any risks," said Judy Farsaie of Rockville. She's telling her kids, ages 17, 6 and 4, they can dress up, but they can't go door-to-door.
"We'll head to the mall and go to grandparents' and friends' houses," she said.
At the Cherry Hill Farm and Orchard, 16 miles south of downtown Washington, the school trip cancellations could mean the loss of a couple of hundred thousand dollars -- money the owners rely on for the winter, when the farm isn't open for business.
To save business and keep the Halloween spirit, the Gallahans decided to try something new.
"We're taking pumpkins and doughnuts and cider and hay bales to the schools," said Pat Gallahan, 68. So far, they've received 50 orders from schools.
Pumpkins-by-delivery will go for $2.50 instead of $2, and a dozen doughnuts will cost $4.75 instead of $4.50. But it's worth it, said Ilene Lewis, director of the Library of Congress's Little Scholar Child Development Center.
"Everyone is pretty apprehensive," Lewis said.
Parents are particularly concerned after the sniper critically injured a 13-year-old boy in front of Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie. Schools in the region have kept children inside, and many football games and other outdoor activities have been called off or moved elsewhere.
Police and county officials say it's too early to issue guidelines about what parents should do for Halloween, hoping they will catch the sniper by then.
Saneia Liu, 35, of Bethesda, said she'll take her children trick-or-treating, but only with a large group.
"I discussed it with my friends," Liu said as she returned a stack of Halloween books to the Rockville library with her 3-year-old daughter, Merry. "They are very hesitant about what to do."
They decided five families with a total of 10 kids would travel as a group within a four- or five-block radius in downtown Bethesda.
Last year, she said she kept her children home because of the anthrax scare. This year, her 4-year-old son, Robert -- eager to dress up as a tiger -- is old enough to be disappointed.
Hoang Tran, 44, of Rockville said he had no qualms about letting his sons, ages 6 and 2, go trick-or-treating.
"I think more people get killed by car accidents than by a sniper," he said.
Other people remained undecided.
"I'm hoping that between now and then (the sniper) will be caught," said Geanne Raia of Silver Spring, who was browsing through costumes in Rockville with her 12- and 16-year-olds.
Ultimately, it's not just the children whom parents are worried about this Halloween, said Phyllis Marcuccio, president of the East Rockville Civic Association.
"The parents are frightened, too," she said.